Reflections of a Language Assistant in the South of France
Just over a year ago I embarked upon one of the biggest adventures of my life and moved to the beautiful Carcassonne in the South of France, to spend eight months teaching English. The prospect filled me a mixture of nerves and excitement from the beginning, but it also ended up proving to be the most fulfilling and enriching experience I’ve had.
As cliché as it sounds, I really did discover joie de vivre during my time in France. I remember initially receiving my Arête de nomination (work contract) in 2016, and the prospect of standing in front of 30 disinterested French teenagers not much younger than me filled me with dread. Yet that was all soon to change. My work included a variety of 1 on 1 sessions, small group conversation classes, as well as taking full classes of up to forty students.
Every day was different, and the students’ levels varied hugely, from those with very basic English who were only interested in learning swear words, to some who made me question my own knowledge of the language (does anyone really know how to construct the conditional perfect tense in English?) Nevertheless, every day I both entered and left the school grounds with a huge smile on my face. I learned to love hearing ‘Hello, Miss!’ shouted across the playground, and even in the shops and bars in the town.
The prospect of standing in front of 30 disinterested French teenagers not much younger than me filled me with dread. Yet that was all soon to change.
The thing that really stands out for me is all the travel I did over the year. A language assistantship is a great way both to see the world and to meet so many incredible people. Twelve hours of work per week is nothing, so I and the other assistants made the most of weekends and free time by travelling around Europe. Our trips included Monaco, Montpellier, Paris, Madrid, Barcelona, Bordeaux, Marseille, San Sebastián, Brussels, Florence, Venice, Nice, and the French Riviera, to name but a few!
On such adventures, I learned how important it is to have the savoir faire when travelling. I was sure to make use of the extensive advice available, such as that from the FCO (Foreign & Commonwealth Office) on topics such as pickpockets and being hustled , without which our voyages might not have gone so smoothly. Advice such as making two photocopies of your passport, always being aware of your surroundings and to be wary of strangers, especially in densely populated places where there are lots of tourists, was imperative.
The other hugely important benefit of my year teaching was how much my confidence grew. The challenges I faced (such as the nightmare that is French bureaucracy) helped me to become more resilient and culturally aware. While the laid back French way of life did have its benefits when I was sat with a glass of wine in hand for my two-hour lunch break, this distinct lack of urgency meant a lot of delays in getting things organised, in terms of official documents. An example of this was applying for help with funding for my accommodation: the CAF (Caisses d’Allocations Familiales) took almost the entire year to be approved before I received any money. I had to be persistent when dealing with French bureaucracy, which certainly helped my French language improve. This all highlighted to me the differences between French and English administration, which was very interesting.
I do feel by the end of the year I’d become more assertive and persistent, but also more willing to accept different ways of thinking, having found myself dealing with professionals from all walks of life. Be that when setting up a French bank account, dealing with colleagues at school, applying for funding and even dealing with a French landlord.
The teaching experience I gained was also invaluable. Language assistants often take on roles as private tutors outside of schools to complement their work, and this proved to be very lucrative. Every Monday I would be chauffeured to a French château (literally a castle) to teach a young girl English and be paid to enjoy the finest French wines from their own personal vineyard while playing charades in English (no exaggeration). The opportunities open to native English speakers amazed me. I became very close with the family, and they were only too pleased to help me out if ever I needed assistance, and also to show me their beautiful region. These are all contacts I shall certainly keep for life and memories I will treasure.
Every Monday I would be chauffeured to a French château to teach a young girl English and be paid to enjoy the finest French wines from their own personal vineyard while playing charades in English.
When it comes to advice for future language assistants, first and foremost, I would say the key word is ‘profiter’ (literally meaning ‘make the most of it’). This soon became my year abroad motto! Travel as far as you can and don’t be afraid to try new things. Say yes to that trip to the Pyrenees with the teachers, to that night-time train to Paris, to performing (and humiliating yourself) at the fête du vin or that three-hour wine tasting session mid school-week with the teachers – mais pourquoi pas? A year abroad is definitely the time to discover yourself, and I was amazed with the opportunities available to me.
However great spontaneity is though, one of my other biggest pieces of advice is to make sure you do your research before you travel! Use sites such as the FCO travel advice website with their checklists and living abroad advice pages to research all your adventures. No matter where you travel, it’s always important to do your homework first to make sure you’re aware of local customs and any other general advice that could help you out. You don’t want to be stuck in Monte-Carlo with a 50 euro fine because you weren’t aware of the public transport restrictions (as I shamefully found myself!).
Travel as far as you can and don’t be afraid to try new things. Say yes to that trip to the Pyrenees with the teachers, to that night-time train to Paris.
As for classroom advice: set your boundaries early. Make sure the students know your role and that you are a professional there to teach. Have lesson plans and resources, but also be prepared to completely abandon them – c’est la vie! Make your lessons fun: introduce competition, use role play and games to get the students conversing in English as much as possible. Don’t be afraid to embarrass yourself, the more extravagant and enthusiastic you are the better the students respond. And be prepared for the hilarity of the double entendres and the laughs of your students as you mispronounce the French words. Your students will certainly teach you a thing or two!
Finally, be prepared to shed a tear at the end. My last day at school was emotional to say the least. I even asked the head if I could stay on another month! My year in France left me with a wealth of experience, some hilarious anecdotes, feeling well travelled and accomplished and, most importantly, it opened my eyes to a career that I am now confident I wish to pursue: teaching.